Model in Babs Radon, The Dress Circle
If your mum lived her fashionable youthful days through the 1960’s, and was into New Zealand fashion, like my mum, then she might’ve told you all about Babs Radon. I also remember some stuff about Dinah Lee… but let’s save that for a different post!
Babs Radon was an Auckland-based fashion label started by husband and wife team, Don and Barbara Penberthy in the late fifties. The name ‘Babs Radon’ came as a collaboration of their two names, when they couldn’t secure the rights to use their shop name, Contessa, as the label’s name (intellectual property, it is super important to get right!). They eventually closed their Mt Eden shop, to move to a High St workroom and focus on growing and developing their label.
Barbara was the design genius and talent behind the Babs Radon label, after training in cutting and pattern-making from the age of 16, and gaining further experience by working for young NZ designer Emma Knuckey in the early 1950’s. Barbara was, for at time, a single working mum, using her pattern-making and cutting skills to support her and her son. She then married Don Penberthy in 1952, and he supported her in her vision of having her own shop and designer label.
While Barbara was in charge of her own manufacturing business under Babs Radon, she still wasn’t allowed to sign her own cheques, due to being a woman. Ridiculous! However, Barbara didn’t focus on the short-comings she was presented, and in-fact saw her position as a woman in business as completely the opposite:
“If the individual woman is awake to it… she will find that the world is her oyster. It is without doubt a woman’s world – if she chooses it to be that way.”
– Barbara Penberthy
From Charlotte MacDonald’s book The Vote, The Pill, and the Demon Drink – A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand 1869-1993
Barbara went on to achieve great things under the Babs Radon label during the 1960’s, which put her on the pages of Vogue, and shot her to the position of one of the most successful NZ fashion designers of the time. She collected awards from local design competitions like the Golden Shears and the New Zealand Wool Awards (beautifully tailored wool was her speciality), one of which, the Supreme Award of 1963’s New Zealand Wool Awards, was presented to her by Queen Elizabeth II when she was touring little ol’ NZ! The excitement of that moment is beyond imagining! She also was asked to redesign the NAC (now Air New Zealand) air hostess uniform in 1966, which, of course, was in her signature elegantly-tailored style. (Can I be next, pleeeease?)
Barbara cultivated her label for the modern working woman, like herself, who wanted to look polished and chic in the 1960’s world. Her ethos was always to make “beautiful clothes for women to feel good in” . I hear you on that one, Babs! She also told nzgirl: “One of the nicest compliments I received from a client was that my clothes made her feel beautiful.” There’s a transformative power that can be found in beautifully made clothing; the elevation of confidence, posture and grace that comes from a beautifully tailored suit or gown is second-to-none. She dressed strong women who would go on to do wonderful things in the feminist realm, like feminist broadcaster and columnist Cherry Raymond.
And with style inspirations like the Givenchy-dressed Audrey Hepburn and the less-is-more Jackie O, it’s no surprise that I would be a Babs Radon/Barbara Penberthy fan! My mum and me, we are TOTAL Audrey’s
The Babs Radon label wrapped up in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, when looser, more youthful, and cheaper styles had taken over the fashion scene, bringing with it a whole different clientele. The label was laid to rest in the image Barbara always intended for it; elegant, tailored and highly sought-after.
If you’d like to find out more about Barbara, Babs Radon or any other of NZ’s fashion designers from history, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Dress Circle (right), or visiting the NZ Fashion Museum website.
Here’s to beautiful clothes, and feeling good!
Check out some of my other Women Crushes here!